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Christ and the Kingdoms of Men: Foundations of Political Life

Christ and the Kingdoms of Men: Foundations of Political Life. David C. Innes. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2019.

 

While the modern state is only around 500 years old, government is much older and can be traced to the beginning of history. Indeed government is so entrenched a feature of human life that it would take a leap of imagination to envision a world without it. From the first Egyptian dynasty to the nascent federalism of the European Union, from the rule of tribal chieftains to the modern political institutions of English-speaking democracies, human beings have lived under various forms of political rule, both benefiting from and suffering under it. How do we account for this ubiquity of political rule? To answer this question, David C. Innes, professor of politics at The King’s College in New York, has written an excellent introduction to government from a Christian perspective, drawing on the Bible and the Reformed Christian tradition. In so doing, he has painted a winsome portrait of government’s place in a fully human life lived before the face of God.

In the introductory chapter, “Why the Christian Study of Politics?” Innes points to the use of political language in the Bible with reference to God’s relationship to his creation. Scripture portrays God as ruler, sovereign, giver of law—descriptions which are more than just metaphor. The gospel proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God indicates the central role of political language in telling us who God is and what he does. Thus for Innes political theory is necessarily connected to political theology, and a Christian political theory is necessarily a political theology (xx).

Chapter 1 is entitled, “The Kingdom of God: The Theological Framework for Political Life.” Here Innes portrays human beings as God’s vice-regents, ruling the world on his behalf. The coming of God’s kingdom can be understood as a three-stage narrative, beginning with creation, moving into the fall into sin, and ending with redemption in Jesus Christ. Man’s appointed task is spelled out in the “creation mandate,” as found in Genesis 1:26-28. Also known as the cultural or dominion mandate, it consists of a four-fold instruction, namely, to multiply, to fill, to subdue, and to rule (13-14). The fall into sin has interrupted this activity but has not cancelled it altogether. We continue to shape culture but we do so in obedient or disobedient ways. Christ’s redemption “is restoring our ability to accomplish Adam’s task” (19), while we await the final accomplishment of his kingdom.

Chapter 2 explores “The Authority of Government: The Divine Foundation of Political Life.” In the liberal account of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, government “must necessarily derive its just authority from the consent of the governed” (25). By contrast, Innes believes that all authority originates with God. To be sure, popular consent is desirable, but it cannot stand at the origin of authority. In fact, all governments are God’s vice-regents “in a civil respect” (25), accountable “to govern by his standards of justice and mercy” (27). Not all rulers recognize this, of course, and there is a persistent tendency for governments to become tyrannical and oppressive. As a possible remedy, John Calvin suggests that “magistrates of the people” be set up “to restrain the willfulness of kings” (28). Following Abraham Kuyper, Innes recognizes that society consists of several distinct spheres deriving their authority directly from God: “the personal, domestic, ecclesiastic, and civic spheres” (29). Government is but one sphere among many, yet it occasionally claims more power than it ought. Innes discusses the implications of Romans 13 for those living under less than fully just rulers.

“The Purpose of Government” we find treated in chapter 3. Innes asserts that we need government for two purposes. First, because we are created, God has blessed us with government to provide the infrastructure for our common life as citizens in a pluriform society, something we cannot do for ourselves either as individuals or as nonstate communities. Second, because we are fallen creatures, God establishes government “to punish evil and praise well-doing, with a view to protecting the lives and property, the piety and morality, of the governed, thus securing them in the private sphere of liberty in which they can live . . . fully human lives” (45).

In chapter 4 Innes discusses “Punishing Evil: Life and Property,” emphasizing the special care that government is to extend to those most vulnerable in society, whom the Bible labels the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner. The protection of property is most important in this respect, because property ownership provides the basis for widespread prosperity. Innes believes that, when a government undertakes to redistribute wealth, it is committing injustice. “Government redistribution of wealth is essentially the many plundering the few by means of the government. It is like a pillaging mob except more orderly” (71). Would he exclude the welfare state or a social safety net, as most western countries have established? In chapter 7 he seems to do so.

Chapter 5, “Punishing Evil: Piety and Morality,” is where Innes has made his most distinctive contribution to our understanding of the purpose of government, yet it may also be the one modern westerners will find most objectionable. Drawing on such biblical texts as 1 Timothy 2:1-2, Innes holds that a key responsibility of government is to “maintain conditions appropriate for believers leading a specifically godly life in government-supported civic peace” (75). Especially since the 1960s we have come to think that government should take a position of benign neutrality towards a variety of lifestyle choices, something that I have called the “choice-enhancement state,”[1] the latest stage in the centuries-long development of liberalism. Under this approach, the state refrains from embracing any particular conception of the good life, allowing individuals to pursue their own respective visions of happiness.

But this is not enough, as Innes sees it. While government cannot and should not do the work of the church, it can and must “protect the spiritual environment, conditions favorable to cultivating that love of God” (78). It must ensure “that the life of the church is unhindered in its redemptive mission until Christ brings it to fulfillment at his return” (79). For normative and prudential reasons government cannot compel people to attend church, but “it can minimize temptations from commerce, sports, the demands of work, and other unnecessary distractions” by maintaining sabbath laws (80). To those who argue that Innes’s approach violates the separation of church and state, Innes responds that his intention is not to expound the US Constitution but to advance “the biblical teachings on civic life” (80). Rejecting anticipated accusations of theocracy, Innes professes a belief in freedom of religion, which he believes is best anchored in a “properly constituted and culturally mature Christian nation” (84). The current regime, based on a “legal indifference to religion” (84), subtly undermines the religious convictions of all citizens by implicitly communicating that such convictions are irrelevant, not only to public life, but perhaps to the rest of life as well.

In similar fashion, Innes believes that government properly maintains and protects the moral environment of a nation, something that has fallen out of fashion over the past more than half a century, as laws once prohibiting pornography, prostitution, and immodesty have fallen victim to changing public mores. To those who assert that we cannot legislate morality Innes argues that, while government by itself cannot make people moral, it “can protect the conditions in which people most easily thrive morally” (88). Government cannot root out all vices, but it can and ought to encourage conditions that enable virtue to flourish. This stems from the biblical mandate that government punish evildoers and praise the good (1 Peter 2:14).

In chapter 6, “Punishing Evil: Liberty,” Innes argues that, because human beings are created for liberty, government is obligated to protect “a private sphere of liberty for people” (98). But liberty here does not mean simply the right to satisfy every whim that wells up in our hearts. Rather it entails the right to live according to our nature and to govern ourselves “with a view to what is right and good” (100). Because such freedom can only be lived out by a virtuous people, government once more ought to encourage the conditions that produce such virtue, largely by protecting such seedbeds of virtue as the family, the church, and other significant communities. The enjoyment of liberty thus depends on government removing impediments to piety and morality, as laid out in the previous chapter.

In chapter 7, “Praising Good,” Innes returns to the welfare state, which he believes brings government into activities that depart from the biblical mandate to praise the good, compelling them instead to provide the good. Yet when it does so, government inculcates in citizens a sense of entitlement, suppressing gratitude, and discouraging private charity. “When government moves from praising the deed to providing the good, the good disappears and evils follow” (106). Far better would it be for government to encourage people in their various private capacities to meet the needs of a nation, “from beautification projects to helping the poor, the sick, and the homeless” (106). Citing George H. W. Bush’s encouragement of Americans to serve as “a thousand points of light,” Innes argues that a free people should be an active people, acting in political life to be sure, but also in the myriad other communities of which they are part.

In chapter 8, “The Problem of Government and the Modern Solution,” the author addresses what he calls the political problem, namely, how to invest government with both the needed power to fulfil its responsibilities and the restraint to prevent it becoming tyrannical. The modern liberal attempts to solve the problem by means of a social contract among sovereign individuals. By contrast, a Christian response, set forth in chapter 9 (“The Problem of Government and a Christian Response”), must begin with a Christian cosmology and an anthropology that understands man as both created in God’s image and fallen into sin. With this understanding, Innes believes that good government must be the servant of people in their various private capacities and ought not to provide directly too much for them. “Government by its nature is suited to help people help themselves—whether individually, or as families, communities, associations, churches, and businesses” (138).

Chapter 10, “The Problem of Government: Submission and Resistance,” deals with the age-old dilemma of the legitimate extent of obedience to government’s authority. Because governments so often take on tyrannical or even totalitarian pretensions, Christians are obligated to assess their claims, especially in light of clear biblical injunctions to submit to government, in, e.g., Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.

In chapter 11, “The Practice of Government: Citizenship and Statesmanship,” Innes offers a moral account of citizenship, which goes beyond a mere legal definition. A moral citizen is dedicated, not only to his own good, but to the shared good of the nation. Citizenship implies not only a right to vote but even to aspire to public office. A good statesman loves his country, striving to make it more worthy of his love. He is prudent, knowing how to apply his principles under less than ideal circumstances. He is aware of the limits of politics, constantly considering what is possible and what is not. He knows the value of persuasion in the public arena. Innes advocates a position that he calls “covenantal kingship,” in which the statesman is conscious of his ultimate accountability to God in addition to his more proximate-level allegiances.

In assessing this book, I will begin with a major deficiency. Despite the word justice occurring throughout the book, as indicated in the index, nowhere does Innes discuss it in any depth, which is disappointing. The larger western tradition of political reflection makes much of justice—arguably one of the defining features of government and central to its normative task. Yet it is included neither in the “key terms” at the end of each chapter nor in the glossary at book’s end. Admittedly, Innes’ discussion presupposes a conception of justice, which he unfolds implicitly throughout. Government is obligated to protect the poor and vulnerable, to maintain the legal conditions for a flourishing civil society, to punish crimes and deter criminals, and to defend liberty in its various manifestations. These are all encompassed in the general mandate of government to do justice. Of course, each of us is called to do justice in every area of life. To commit adultery is to perpetrate an injustice against one’s spouse. To goof off at work is to do an injustice to one’s employer and fellow workers. But government is called to a unique form of justice—public justice, by which it maintains a proper balance among the various authoritative agents, individual and communal, that make up a mature differentiated society.

I suspect that this lack of attention to justice is due the limits of political theology as a discipline. If political theology begins with Scripture, political science as an empirical discipline begins with the raw data of political life. To be sure, political science is not religiously neutral, and the practitioner does not and cannot park her ultimate beliefs on the sidelines before plunging into the subject matter. Nevertheless, the empirical nature of the discipline means that one must attend to the ways governments actually function in the real world. Every government balances the various interests within its jurisdiction. Even the political realist preferring to banish justice to the separate realms of morality and religion will speak of a balance of powers—language by which justice sneaks in the back door. Weighing interests in the balance is quite simply what governments do. They may get the balance wrong in small or large ways, yet the jural task of government—of rendering to each his or her due—is always present, if sometimes in distorted form.

To observe that the Bible is not a handbook for statesmanship can be a way of unduly discounting the relevance of biblical faith for political life. However, given that the apostles Paul and Peter were not intending to set forth the basic tasks of government in their respective writings, focussing on the two tasks of punishing evil and praising good may not be the best way of accounting for the way governments function in the real world. In other words, political theology is not a substitute for an in-depth study of political life itself.

That said, what I especially appreciate about this book is the element likely to be most controversial, namely, Innes’s argument that government has an obligation to encourage and maintain the spiritual and moral environment of a polity, removing impediments to the cultivation of civic virtues. Although I might put the matter differently, I’ve become increasingly convinced in recent years that political culture is of utmost importance for the functionality of a political system. While it includes such tangible elements as flags and other symbols, for the most part it consists of intangible attitudes towards political life rooted in what Walter Lippmann calls traditions of civility. Attempts to create constitutional government de novo will likely fall flat in the absence of such traditions. Thus the genius of the American constitution rests not so much in the founders or the document they drafted as in the American people themselves, heir to longstanding habits of representative government traceable to late mediæval England and nurtured in the colonial assemblies from the early 17th century. The founders understood this, and Innes properly makes much of it. Government’s pretended neutrality with respect to expressive individualism versus the “thick” communal standards of traditional religions effectively erodes such traditions, which we cannot afford to take for granted. Whether governments are willing or able to take on such responsibilities is another question, of course, especially in the absence of a favourable popular consensus.

Christ and the Kingdoms of Men contains study questions at the end of each chapter, in addition to the key words and glossary mentioned earlier, which makes the book appropriate for classroom use. I strongly encourage especially Christians wishing to explore the implications of their faith for political life to read and consider carefully the argument on its pages. Even if you disagree, it raises issues deserving to be discussed and, well, weighed in the balance.

 

Notes

[1] See Koyzis, Political Visions and Illusions (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2019), 48-56.

David T. KoyzisDavid T. Koyzis

David T. Koyzis

David Koyzis is a Global Scholar with Global Scholars Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions ( IVP Academic, 2003) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (Pickwick, 2014).

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